Noie: Congratulations. Notre Dame will be good again in 2021, but will it be good enough?

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Head coach Brian Kelly, shown during the Blue-Gold game May 1, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, is expected to become the program's all-time winningest coach during the upcoming season.

On those rare occasions when the summer heat and humidity got away for a couple days and Northern Indiana mornings dawned cool and cloudy, it felt a lot like fall. 

It felt like college football. 

Nobody was sure what to feel this time last year, when the Fourth of July came and went and nothing about a college football season was certain. In the following days, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 would outright cancel their 2020 campaigns, only to reverse and restart when other leagues refused to do the same and instead pushed through the global pandemic. Damn the protocols and the virus testing, the games would go on. So would the season. 

Notre Dame wound up playing its first — and maybe only — season as a league member after the Atlantic Coast Conference offered a once-in-a-lifetime scheduling lifeline. Thanks again, John Swofford. Ten wins and an appearance in the College Football Playoff for the second time in three seasons followed, but we know how it ended. A Notre Dame team again good enough to be considered among the nation’s elite wasn’t elite enough, and a year like no other ended like a lot of the others — with a lopsided Irish postseason loss to one of the game’s elites. 

Time to try it all again, to go from what Irish coach Brian Kelly said late in what classified as a spring practice as a good team to a great team. Is there great there? If so, where? 

College football returns full throttle in 2021. Notre Dame again is an independent playing a schedule of its choosing. Fans will be back in the stadium stands (yeah!), media back in press boxes (hallelujah!) and tailgaters (hopefully) back in the parking lots. It will be an interesting and intriguing year as teams return to normal. 

Yet interest and intrigue hover over Notre Dame regardless. The fall will be no exception. Good or great, what the Irish do and how the Irish do it always will draw eyes. 

Notre Dame is on a ridiculous run, posting a 43-8 record over the past four seasons. The last time we heard from Kelly after an actual game — following the “Rose Bowl” loss to Alabama which actually wound up being played in Arlington, Texas (thanks again, pandemic) — he was salty about us local media.

Kelly was riled up about how those who cover the Irish on a daily basis didn’t offer a collective congratulations on another double-digit win season. Instead, we scribes dwelled on how far the Irish seemed from their first national championship since 1988 after losing the last two games (to Clemson and Alabama) by a combined score of 65-24. 

Might as well get this out of the way now, while the weather’s still nice and the championship hope is still high — congratulations on what likely will be another double-digit win season, Coach. And also, congrats to someone set to become the winningest coach in program history. 

Move over, Rock, BK’s moving on up, which makes a chunk of the fan base cringe. 

Kelly’s not Knute Rockne, but take a minute to admire the longevity. Outside of Rockne (13 years) nobody’s done it longer (12th season) at Notre Dame. Ara Parseghian didn’t last that long. Lou Holtz didn’t last that long. Bob Davie, Charlie Weis, ah, never mind. That Kelly still calls South Bend home, and likely will through a contract that runs through 2024 says something. 

Only the school’s 12th national championship will say everything. 

Kelly could pass the legendary Rockne with the season’s fourth win — which could come as early as the Sept. 25 game against Wisconsin at Soldier Field. But, much like Kelly’s time at Notre Dame, it’s complicated. 

Kelly enters 2021 with 102 wins at Notre Dame, but 21 were vacated under NCAA penalty. Still, the Notre Dame media guide recognizes those wins. Maybe there’s an asterisk there, but they happened. 

This team, this season 

Kelly moves forward with an offense that looks nothing like it did last year now that the winningest quarterback in school history — Ian Book and his 30 victories — has packed up his amazing consistency and gone off to the NFL. Four of the team’s starting offensive linemen from 2020 have joined him. The Irish will miss Book, maybe perhaps as soon as Labor Day Sunday night in Tallahassee against Florida State, and likely later on down the line. 

Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan (17), shown here during the Blue-Gold Game, is the presumed replacement at quarterback for the graduated Ian Book.

Graduate transfer Jack Coan will get the first chance under center, but he remains a blank slate. Coan won at Wisconsin, but the spotlight always is on the Notre Dame quarterback. Better deliver like Book, who often did, but seemingly never enough for everyone’s liking. 

Fortunately, running back Kyren Williams returns. Nowhere near prepared for prime time as a freshman during a cameo at Louisville in 2019 – saw him that night in the Commonwealth, then didn't really see him again – Williams roared back with a solid sophomore season (1,125 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns). He’ll be good. Tight end Michael Mayer will be good. 

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer (87) emerged as one of the best tight ends in the country as a true freshman and will likely be relied on heavily as a sophomore.

After that, a lot of possibilities, but a lot of unknowns. Is there a Javon McKinley-type breakout season (42 catches, 717 yards, 3 TDs) waiting for someone in the wide receiver room? Will be interesting to see who steps up and stands out. Who can go from good to really good? To great? 

On defense, it’s crowded for who can be the next Khalid Kareem or Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah or Julian Love. Don’t get defensive lineman Kurt Hinish angry. Don’t expect MTA (Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa) to be MIA. Don’t let linebacker Drew White get a clean shot. Don’t sleep on Bo Bauer or Jack Kiser. And enjoy watching safety Kyle Hamilton roam and wreak havoc, for this likely is his last go-round. He’s that good. First-round NFL draft pick good as long as he stays healthy and maxes out that limitless potential. 

Can’t wait to see why defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was the gotta-get offseason recruit. He’ll turn his guys loose to make guys better. He’ll also figure it out at cornerback. 

Marcus Freeman was one of the most sought-after assistant coaches in college football last season. Coming from Cincinnati, Freeman is expected to bring intensity as Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator.

Notre Dame has a chance to be good, but here’s the rub — will anyone outside of the 574 notice? Unlike seasons past, there’s not that one must-see/win game to point to as a turning point. No game at Georgia. No home game against Clemson. USC? North Carolina? We’ll see. 

There’s no one-shot league championship to chase. No regular-season league championship to keep you in the national conversation. No way for the Irish to play really well on a big stage and prove they’re good. They might embark on another double-digit win journey without much of a shrug nationally. 

Notre Dame will have to grind it out against overmatched Toledo and sneaky good Cincinnati and never-easy Navy. Such is life as an independent. Such is college football life in South Bend, where pretty good is not good enough. 

College football’s a full go with fans and focus and energy and enthusiasm. As the Fourth of July came and went, hope and optimism and anticipation remained for what the fall all will bring. 

Can’t wait to again see how it all unfolds. Let’s go. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI